Understanding the Other: Mentalizing with Attachment Theory
Understanding other people's worldviews without having to agree with them.
Posted Oct 09, 2020
Emotions are running high… and it is getting more and difficult to understand the worldviews and behaviors of the other people in your life. At the very least, it's challenging to remain consistently warm, available, and responsive to them. And these are the same behaviors—being consistent, warm, available, and responsive—that enable you to act as a secure base, help others regulate their own emotions, and facilitate them exploring their own attitudes and beliefs. One tool that can enable you to remain present and facilitate a healing space (for you and the other person) is mentalizing.
Mentalizing, also known as reflective functioning, is the ability to perceive the experience of another person—their emotions, thoughts, motives, and behaviors—from their side of the street, not yours, and to reflect it back to them in a way that they say to themselves… ”Hey, this person really understands me.” And, when people feel understood, they feel cared for and are much more likely to be open to your point of view.
Mentalizing is an overlearned skill that becomes an automatic process by the time you reach adulthood. It develops as a function of the way that secure parents reflect back to the young child what the child’s experience is… and this is how children learn about their own experiences and “the story of I"—the narrative, or story, you carry around in your head, of what it means to be you and to have had your experience of the world (and people, emotions, circumstances, etc.).
When a secure parent sees a child make a face when tasting a new food, the parent might say, "Yuck? Yeah, you didn’t like that, did you? Was that yucky?” And in the child’s brain, this might translate like “yuck… that is this taste in my mouth and that face I just made. And no, I don’t like that at all. And my parent gets it and can see this experience in me”—which obviously makes the parent a safe person to explore thoughts, emotions, and experiences with.
The secure parent knows that if they can understand the world of the child, they will develop a shared language to talk about experiences. And the child will start to model the parent’s mentalizing process. If the parent makes a face, the child might say, "You think that’s yucky, too,” and take pleasure in reading the mind and experience. And the good news is that we don’t even have to get it right all the time (us or the child). Peter Fonagy, the best-known researcher and theorist behind mentalizing and reflective functioning, has observed that he and other parents are doing pretty well if they are right 50% of the time. But this is good: It teaches the child that I can see your experience, but you and I can look at the same events and have a different experience of them. By extension, the child might have an idea of how things are from his/her view but know that the parent might have a completely different idea of things—like doing his/her homework.
So, now let’s come back into adult space and see how this might play out with your friends, family, and significant others. If you have a secure attachment style already, you might just need a refresher. If you have one of the three insecure attachment styles, you might need a bit more practice.
The steps to reading someone else’s experiences go like this:
Decenter: Put your story aside for the moment while you prepare to listen to the other person’s experience.
Listen and reflect:
1. Listen to the other person’s experience and ask questions to get at what it is like to be them. You might ask things like:
- How did it feel for you to see X?
- What is your emotional experience around this?
- And how does that fit in with where you see yourself in the world?
- If X happens, will that seem like something that would make you feel anxious (scared, angry?)
- How are you experiencing this interaction with me right now?
2. Reflect back (verbally and via facial expression)
- You’ve seen a lot of X in your life.
- I know it’s pretty distressing for you to see.
- It seems like this might have a negative impact on you.
- I can see why, from what you’ve told me, this might be troubling to you.
- I know… you’re not used to us interacting like this (said with a lighthearted smile).
3. Pay attention to your body to get the fullest data set.
- In order to intuit someone else’s emotional experience, it can help to understand all (4) of the attachment styles and how each experiences and processes emotions when they feel threatened or vulnerable… and how this impacts their style of coping with what they perceive as the problem.
- See if your right brain can pick up on what they are feeling at the present moment. (Remember that the anxiety, anger, etc. that you might feel could be theirs.)
4. Repeat back to the other person your understanding of their experience, but when it comes to inferring motives, keep it on how they feel and see the world—not looking at it from an adversarial position.
Now, you can re-center and step back into your own story and your world, being fully OK with the fact that you might be having an entirely different experience than the person you are talking with. I have had many experiences as a therapist when, after doing this for a session or two, the client will look at me after going into their story and say something like, "You know how we think that…” to which I smile and reply, “I’m sorry, I just need to clarify. I am totally supportive of your process and clarifying how you feel about things. I really like how you are sharing your worldview with me, but from my personal worldview, I totally disagree with your position on this issue.” I say this with all sincerity and warmth, and to be honest, no one has ever seemed very surprised by my statement and it has not interfered with the relationships. We go on to have many similar conversations in subsequent sessions. The person remains open and engaged with me while knowing that I have a different worldview and may disagree personally with their positions.
You don’t have to agree or live on the same planet to be able to mentalize another person. Just remember to leave their emotions in their body when you come back home to your side of the street.
Fonagy, P., & Target, M. (1997). Attachment and reflective function: their role in self-organization. Development and Psychopathology, 9(4), 679–700.